Monday, February 12, 2018

Democracy Remains the Solution to Hillel's Biggest Problems

Hillel International endorsed Kenneth Marcus for the head Civil Rights position at the Department of Education -- mostly because Marcus is a firm opponent of BDS and campus antisemitism more broadly.

The problem is that (controversy over BDS aside) Kenneth Marcus also is viewed as weak on sexual assault, favoring a rollback of Obama-era regulations designed to get colleges to clamp down on sexual violence.

This has led to serious controversy within Hillel. Hillel International head Eric Fingerhut refused to rescind his endorsement, but did agree that the organization should "consider" altering its policies regarding endorsements and the need for consultation with Hillel constituent members:
In an email sent to campus Hillel directors Friday, Hillel President and CEO Eric Fingerhut acknowledged that the Hillel staff had raised questions about the Marcus endorsement. He said that Hillel International’s board would consider new procedures by which the organization’s leadership would in the future consult with Hillel staff and students before taking public positions on political issues. He also said that he had meant to endorse Marcus’s work on anti-Semitism only, not his position on the campus sexual assault issue.
At the risk of tooting my own horn, you know what would be a great "procedure" facilitating consultation with Jewish students before Hillel adopts a public policy position? Democracy! If Hillel was a democratic organization, this misstep would have been far less likely to have occurred, and the position Hillel did take would have been far more likely to be in line with the actual preferences of Hillel students.

The thing is, democracies are responsive to their actual constituents in a way that Hillel is not. Given Hillel's institutional setup, it's utterly unsurprising that Fingerhut made his decision based on an issue of high-importance to his donor base while being utterly unaware of a countervailing issue of equal if not greater importance to Hillel's actual constituency. Simply put, Fingerhut is accountable to the former but not the latter. So he's going to be well aware of what matters to the former while being blissfully ignorant about the concerns of the latter. And the result is that he'll blunder into errors like this over and over again.

And one more thing: Maybe it's the case that Hillel students actually do care more about Marcus' work incorporating Jews under DOE regulatory protection than they do his conservative views on sexual violence prevention. If that's the case, then maybe a Democratic Hillel would have also given him an endorsement. But one suspects it would've been done in a more qualified and politically sensitive way. More importantly, in that circumstance the endorsement would carry democratic legitimacy that is lacking when decisions are made by the equivalent of an unelected autocrat. Democratic governance is good because it yields more responsive decision-making, yes, but also because it is simply legitimate in a way that Hillel, right now, cannot claim to be.

1 comment:

Joe in Australia said...

I don't disagree in principle, but in practice democratic student organisations are susceptible to ideological capture. Hillel is or would be a prime target for that sort of capture, and the loss of its accumulated social and physical capital would be a tragedy for organised Jewish life on campus. It would be almost impossible to rebuild Hillel under a different banner, which is why I believe the present structure, paternalistic as it may he, is a useful firewall.

My concern over Marcus' reaction to Title IX complaints is that it possibly echose the secret fears of campus Hillel organisations (whose interests as potential defendants necessarily diverge from their members'). In my opinion those fears, if they exist, would be misguided. Personal safety from sexual assault is a live issue for least half of Hillel's constituency; and persons who feel unsafe on campus cannot be expected to fully engage in Hillel's activities. Furthermore, I suspect that there's a cultural crossover between antisemitism and support for sexually predatory behaviour, making this a matter of direct relevance to Hillel.

So rather than seeing this as a wedge issue between students and the administrators of a student service organisation, I think we should see it as an opportunity to clarify Hillel's goals. Hillel should be expected to take a position on sexual violence as a Jewish student organisation. The same should apply to (e.g.) racial issues, too. It's time to move past "building alliances" or even taking on social concerns as tikun olam; :Hillel's constituency is diverse, and consequently women's issues and racial issues (without any desire to tread on existing groups' turf) are part of Hillel's core mission. If Marcus' nomination is to be opposed by Hillel it shouldn't be because it's out of touch with the seitgeist but because Hillel is standing up for Jewish students whose interests are being subordinated.